Chinatown: noir pour nous

Chinatown_poster A life long dream came true yesterday on the flight from NYC to Mexico City.  I was able to watch a film in flight, not an airline film and not on airline technology which feels increasingly like a stowaway from the 20th century.  I used my Lenovo ThinkPad X60s, the one with the long battery life, and thanks to Amazon UnBox, I was able to see Chinatown, the 1974 film by Roman Polanski.

I got thinking about Chinatown because the post on Raines (Thursday) got me thinking about Noir.  Now, I was singing the praises of Raines but then it occurred to me that it is not nearly so good as Polanski’s film.  It is, at least, good enough to claim kinship with Chinatown, and to have make itself the beneficiary of the things Chinatown did for the genre.  (And that’s saying something.)

This is a “second look” film if ever there were one.  The plot demands it, in the way that Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects does.  Once you know the outcome, you are obliged to review every detail.  But it is second look in another way:  it is so very carefully crafted.

I have a funny habit of mentally “clicking” when things in the world fall into a “composition.”  It’s as if whenever things line up in the manner of a photograph, I feel compelled to “take the picture.”  Sometimes I actually click my teeth, to mark exactly when the composition was “just right.”  Normally, I would not share this with you, dear reader.  But it’s worth mentioning here because Chinatown had me clicking like crazy.  In the scene that has Jack Nicholson (as Jake “J.J.” Gittes) drive his car up the driveway of the Mulwray mansion (24:37-55 on the Amazon UnBox counter), I clicked 17 times.  (I had to go back and count, obviously.  There is actually a double count opportunity, but never mind.)  It is as if the eye (Polanski too?) is trying to return the moving images to a series of stills.

Having satisfied his aesthetic craving for order, Polanski puts the film back together again with a device that I came to think of as “eddies.”  There are little moments in the film that refer us back into the film, as if one moment were a ripple returned from an earlier one.

Notice the look Mulwray’s secretary gives Gittes as he is escorted out of Mulwray’s office.  It has ferocious, well banked disdain.  (She is punishing him for having invaded her boss’s office.)   Gittes looks at her as he passes, and, as he groks her disdain, he looks again.  Their eyes lock.  (It’s a .3 second stand off.)  This scene evokes the earlier one, and the movie feels more and more a record of a world, and less and less it’s simulation. 

Notice the smile that Nicholson gives when he is sitting in his office, reading a newspaper and listening to one of this “operatives” describe Mulwray with a resounding, “He’s got water on the brain!”  This tells us volumes about office interactions, a long standing relationship, the pleasure of a friend (or a knucklehead) playing true to form.  Eddies everywhere. 

Polanski is especially good with odd noises, introducing them as anomalies and only later giving us the lowdown.  The first scene of the film begins with a grunting, keening sound we’ve (I’ve) never heard before.  Eventually, it proves to come from a cuckold as he confronts evidence of his wife’s infidelity. 

At Nicholson gets out of his car at the Mulwray’s mansion, he hears squeaking issuing inexplicably from a magnificent sedan.  Eventually we see that this is caused by a servant hard at work waxing and who, eventually, waxes his way right into frame.   When he discovers Nicholson staring at him, he returns a gaze of dull significance.  This is Polanski telling us, possibly, that if there are some signals the significance of which is withheld from us, there may be others.  Faire attention!  Viewer, be warned. 

Clearly, Polanski is a champion noticer.  And he is in this case of Chinatown, a noticer doing a film about a noticer.  The detective is one of those noticers who may, by noticing, actually change the outcome of municipal politics and LA history.  Every artist wants this kind of influence, and the trouble is that, usually, they are forced to settle for something more general and indeterminate.  To be sure, this influence is actually more powerful than the redirection of LA politics, but it takes long and credit is rarely forthcoming.  The vanity of the artist demands both power and proof, cultural influence and political effect.  (And if you’ve got gifts like Polanski’s, who’s to say you don’t deserve it.)   

Now, clearly no one this talented doesn’t steal aesthetic resources anywhere and everywhere.  There is a trace of Kubrick, with every frame furnished and inhabited before we get there (as opposed to Altman who pushed the camera into the hurly-burly of an improv in the hope of capturing something more interesting than anything he could furnish or inhabit. In a sense, Kubrick and Polanski are France.  Altman, England.)  There are moments entirely Hitchcockian, wonderfully shrill and sculpted, as when the body of of poor, drowned Mulwray, his eyes pried open by terror, is pulled into frame.  The is film making ripped from the pages of the pulp and scandal rag, Noir at its most unapologetically overwrought. 

Why does Noir matter to us, especially when so much of it is over the top?  I think its because of all the inventions of popular culture, this is the one most devoted to complexity.  Chinatown has lots and lots of complexity, the plot for one.  The viewer (this viewer anyhow) must from time to time break frame and ask “ok, what’s going on here?” and even then we’re left with the uneasy feeling that there are complexities here that are still probably going to escape us. 

Complexity aside, Noir has always been prepared to be openly sociological.  In this case, we can see social classes cleanly delineated.  As when Nicholson has the black, veneered door of the Mulwray mansion closed in his face.  This is not very subtle, but it gets the job done.  Notice the gazes, then, that pass between the Mulwray’s staff, so like wrought iron in their attention to good form.  This isn’t very subtle either, but clearly Polanski wants certain social truths made clear that he might investigate real subtleties with more subtlety.

Notice the look Mrs. Mulwray gives a detective at 34:14.  The Lieutenant is asking Mrs. M. if she knows who “the girl” is.  She says no.  The detective slides in from the hallway to inspect Mrs. Mulwray more closely.  She returns his gaze and then, seeing his impertinence, she looks at him a second time, this time with affront and that look that leads with a downturned chin, and rakes upward as if to say, “who are you to look at me that way? I return your challenge with my own, and, listen here, you jumped-up little man, my challenge trumps your challenge, by rank and performance and gender.”  Of course, Dunaway issues this challenge with the steely fragility she exhibits in this film, so the “trumping” is, like so much in Chinatown, balanced on a blade’s edge, only just holding and millimeters from failure.   Another kind of tipping point, this one with tolerances set by sociological stipulation.

Complexity and that sociological eye come together as Nicholson begins to understand that he has been drawn into the “wheels within wheels” interaction of forces much larger than himself.  This is urgent sociology.  Nicholson has to crack this case if he is not to end up in a drainage ditch pointed at the Pacific ocean.  See also the moment that Dunaway realizes that she has a problem on her hands.  (Spoiler alert: stop reading here if you have not seen Chinatown, and take this script to your local video store: “for one copy of Chinatown, to be viewed immediately, repeat as necessary (and at least 4x).  [Signed] Dr. McCracken”). 

Dunaway’s problem is Nicholson, a guy whose motives are not quite clear.  He is an accident scouring her life for a place, unpredictably, to happen. We can see her character wondering, who is this guy and what do I have to do to manage him?

This is of course the problem of the modern and post modern society.  With roles unspecified (or at least undeclared) a good deal of social interaction turns on the question:

“who are you to me”


“what am I to you?” 

(This question is usually haunted by another set of questions.  These are:

“Who do you think you are?”


“Don’t you know who I am?”

This is effectively our opportunity to protest the indeterminacy of our social world in situ.)

Finally, we work our way to clarity.  Identities are determined.  Interactions are dispatched.  This is worked out in the economy of impressions, and the exchange of social and cultural capitals, but before this economics is engaged, anthropology must be satisfied.  The actors have to detect role, motive, character. 

At the beginning of Hamlet, when the keepers of the watch are changing shift, Barnardo, the incoming guard, issues a challenge,

“Who’s there?” 

Francisco, the incumbent, isn’t having any of this.  He says,

“Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” 

Barnardo obliges, “Long live the king!”   

If I read this correctly, it is a classic role play.  Barnardo has usurped Francisco’s authority and Francisco responds with something like, “Listen, this is my job.  I challenge you, not the other way round.”  Who is Francisco to Barnardo?  It’s clear.  Even in the face of Barnardo’s indiscretion, it is clear that Francisco is right to challenge the challenge and restore things to order. 

This kind of clarity is missing in our world.  (It was of course being dismantled even in the 16th century to the extraordinary profit of the Elizabethan age and our own.)  In our world, it’s not clear who is who, and how whos should how (if you will forgive Dr. Seuss phrasing.)  Eventually, it will be negotiated, thanks not least to the facilitations of the marketplace, but for the moment things are unclear and perilous, especially if we harbor a secret like Dunaway’s own.

Noir matters finally because it is the only popular form, I think, that can approach tragedy.  My rough and ready definition of tragedy are those moments when two things can’t but must be true.  Clearly, popular culture has always had an inclination to make itself agreeable, like the good natured uncle who works so hard to please everyone.  (My family, rich in scoundrels and the merely disagreeable, would have liked to have had even one person like this.  I speak not from experience, but the big pop-out book of cultural truisms.)  Popular culture has usually defaulted to sunny simplicity and Noir offers something richer, more complicated, more ambivalent.

Ok, I am as you read this sitting in a living room or a kitchen in Mexico City plying the respondent with questions.  I’ve done work here a couple of times before.  Almost universally, respondents have been helpful and illuminating.  Mexico City, does this place do Noir? 


Rich, Nathaniel.  2007.  The Shadows Know.  Vanity Fair.  February 7, 2007. here.

Straw, Will. 2006. Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50s America.  PPE Editions.

For the Wikipedia entry on Chinatown, go here.


With thanks to Paul Melton for the Vanity Fair reference. 

7 thoughts on “Chinatown: noir pour nous

  1. Candy Minx

    What a fun review Grant…Chinatown always has more to offer with each viewing. Your intuition served you well by soaking up all the looking and eye contact in the movie. The 70’s offered us so many movies where the camera lingered on the faces of our idols and stars. Not like now…where the camera jumps around constantly not staying on the face. Polanski referenced and riffed on so many film noir of the 50’s in this “neo-noir” of his…the script by Townes was well schooled that ina ll film noir…it is the woman who “sees everything” the woman knows every thing going on in the plot. Chinatown with it’s special eye contacts between characters really plays with the job title “private eye”. Joh Huston’s small part closes in on another reference to his movie Ashphalt Jungle where a character is referred to as a “kid/daughter” and of course we know how far Townes went with that kind of tough talk in past movies, he brings it to full realization. If there was any doubt of the power fo knowledge in the women of noir…Polanski absolutely hits us over the head in Chinatown…because film noir women are the strongest more intelligent wily and all knowing creatures….Townes/Polanski makes sure we understand the all knowing all seeing woman: they draw attention to Evelyn’s eyes. In bed when Jake and Evelyn are cosy, Jake notes that there is something unusual about her eye. He says there is a black mark in her eye/iris, and she says “it’s a flaw”. We see this self reference to noir history again years later in Bladerunner. When Harrison’s character, Decker, runs tests to verify if the female lead, Rachael, is “real or fake” he tests her eyes along with several questions…under a strange machine hooked up to her iris.

  2. steve

    Chinatown also shows noir’s intense but disguised romanticism. The hidden secret is always so interesting and the stakes for the hero and villain are always so high. The detectives in noir are supposed to be worldy tough guys conversant with human weakness, which serves to heighten the drama when even they are shocked at the hideousness and cynicism of the crimes they stumble upon. It’s a way of using gray rather than white to blacken the blacks.

  3. Habla Mierda

    While I can’t figure it out for the life of me, the feel of Chinatown (especially the ending) always brings be back to Double Indemnity, which is, to this day, the finest noir film ever made.

  4. Auto

    Hmmm, I always thought the point of Evelyn getting shot through the eye was Oedipal — those who engage in incest lose their sight (although in this case not through self-mutilation).

    Pretty much every screenwriter in Hollywood carries a tattered copy of Towne’s script in his knapsack. It’s about as perfect a screenplay as exists.

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